After four years of work and $38.4-million from the city government, Detroit, the United States' largest city with a black majority, opened the nation's largest museum of African-American history on Saturday. It is an ambitious survey of the black experience in the United States.
At the center of the Museum of African American History is a model slave ship with 40 life-size figures of slaves in its hold. Surrounding the vessel are nine room-size exhibits, each using a dozen or more artifacts to illustrate subjects from 14th-centu-ry African history to contemporary black culture in the United States.
Arrayed around that core are two galleries for temporary exhibitions, a 317-seat theater, an indoor amphitheater for school groups and collections of documents for researchers.
The most powerful image in the new building is the slave-ship model. During a recent preview, 10-year-old Lenita Savinon of Detroit stood on a metal grating over the ship's hold. The floor of the hold was littered with empty shackles, symbols of the many slaves who died while being transported. Each of the life-size slave figures is modeled on a Detroit resident, and Lenita pointed to one lying on its side and propped on one elbow, for which she was the model.
Lenita said she didn't find the museum depressing. "It's uplifting," she said, standing a few feet from the figure of herself in chains. "It gives me a lot of information about the people in the past, your brothers and sisters and ancestors."
The uplifting tone is also purposeful. The permanent exhibition seeks to survey not only the travails of blacks in the United States but also their many contributions to society and the strength of their families, said Kimberly Camp, the museum's executive director.
There is a case full of inventions by African-Americans, like the stoplight and the gas mask. Visitors can listen to music by black composers, ranging from symphonic compositions to jazz. There is the flight suit worn by Dr. Mae Jemison, the nation's first black female astronaut.
And the statues of Lenita and other youths are displayed in casual rather than anguished poses. "We wanted to make sure this is not just a sorrow song," Camp said. "We also included those things that are celebratory."
The 100-foot-diameter dome over the museum's rotunda, a complex tracery of glass and steel against the sky, is designed to look like an African hut.
While there is only one dome, the intricate pattern of glass and the sheer number of columns around the base give an impression of multiple domes overhead.
"The dome is an African structure; most of the structures in Africa have domes," said Harold Varner, the museum's chief architect. "One roof is a home. A collection of domes is a village."